Justice for Bangerz, Miley’s glorious mess
Written by ABR on 09/02/2023
Miley Cyrus has always been a slippery character. A cultural shapeshifter — for better or worse — she represents different things to different people. For some, she’s immortalised as Miley Stewart, the teenage girl living a double life as pop star Hannah Montana. For others she’s “Party In the USA” Miley: all high-gloss, sweet 16 pep, and Diet Coke fizz. But there’s also been zonked out, psych-rock Miley (2015’s Flaming Lips-assisted Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), floaty linen dresses country-pop Miley (2017’s Younger Now) and, most recently on 2020’s Plastic Hearts, mullet-sporting, glam-rock Miley. Each incarnation has been met with controversy, pushback, and a round of interviews to raise the hackles of the internet.
As she dominates the charts with streaming phenomenon number-one single “Flowers” (think Harry Styles’ soft-rock pop but with actual swagger), the singer has morphed once again. But there’s one era of Miley Cyrus, let’s call it the Hot Mess era, that feels ripe for re-examination. One that saw her swing naked from a wrecking ball, twerk around Robin Thicke’s crotch area at the VMAs, and become mired in (justified) accusations of cultural appropriation. Released a decade ago this year, her fourth album Bangerz was Miley’s Big Statement Record. It was her approximation of Erotica, Blackout and Control, smeared together and chucked into a glitter-stained bong. Miley had tried to shed her tween past before, with 2010’s on-the-nose “Can’t Be Tamed”, an album that felt like a record label’s idea of rebellion. On Bangerz, Miley — freshly tatted, tongue outstretched and hair bleached and buzzed — murdered Hannah Montana and danced on her grave. She’d also, underneath all the chatter, made what remains her best album, a fact that seemed to get lost as her antics ramped up.
Let’s start with the singles. “We Can’t Stop” — co-created by the album’s main producer, Mike-Will-Made-It — still feels like the older, wilder sister of “Party In The USA”, splayed out at the house party but ready to go again. Sure, the drug references feel ham-fisted, but there’s something weirdly magical about hearing Miley’s country-tinged voice, still shedding some of its Disney sheen, talking about trying to do a line in the bathroom. It’s odd production moments — that jaunty piano mixing with the oversized synths, the pitched down “it’s our party we can do what we want” chants, the slightly-too-slow tempo that adds a watches-Euphoria-once drowsiness — meant it stood out in 2013, and still sounds bizarre a decade later.
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If “We Can’t Stop” got the world chatting, then “Wrecking Ball” left it speechless. Or rather the video did. Opening with a tearful Miley singing the first verse to camera a la Sinead O’Connor, it soon morphs into a B&Q meets BDSM opus: Miley swinging around naked on a wrecking ball, before licking a hammer head and gyrating on a chain. But it’s the song that does the heavy lifting. Controversy only gets you so far. Originally written for Beyoncé, “Wrecking Ball” — a kind of “My Heart Will Go On” for recently dumped teenagers — showcases the various flavours of Miley’s voice, from close and fragile in the verses to soaring and strident on the gargantuan chorus. In fact, despite the controversy, the braggadocio, and all that tongue waggling, so many of Bangerz‘s highlights are its ballads. Minimalist opener “Adore You” — the album’s third single — rides a lilting melody that pushes Miley’s yearning vocals front and centre. That desperation continues on “My Darlin’”, which channels “Stand By Me” and features hints of Miley’s country music upbringing, while the excellent “Drive” finds Miley spilling her heart out (its lyrics are said to be about ex-husband Chris Hemsworth) over Mike-Will-Made-It’s splintering synths, gloom wobbles and atmospheric soundscapes. That last chorus of “Drive my heart into the night” hits like a gut punch.
Obviously there are also big, dumb moments; this is, after all, 2013 Miley Cyrus. The sort-of title track “SMS (Bangerz)”, careens around on a hyped up beat as Miley talks about vibrators and “a tree on her lap”, before Britney arrives to half-sing, half-rap a gloriously nonsensical verse. On the jaunty, hip-hop hoedown “4×4”, produced by a then-out-of-favour Pharrell, Miley refers to herself as “the female rebel” before warning everyone she’s about to piss herself. Then Nelly shows up! On “FU”, she even merges her ballads and bangers side into one song, channelling her godmother Dolly Parton over barroom piano before a suite of pulverising synths come crashing in. In a mainstream pop climate where genuine WTF moments are hard to come by, these moments felt like a breath of fresh air.
Bangerz is a glorious mess that celebrates its creator’s roving eye. It never settles. For every moment of trying-too-hard posturing (“Do My Thang”, “Love Money Party”), there are flashes of genuine loveliness (the whistle-lead “#GETITRIGHT”, the blown out balladry of “Maybe You’re Right”). Every time it veers off-course, Miley’s personality, and that versatile voice, brings it back.
The album is a snapshot of a pop superstar trying to figure out who they are, and within that, falling into cosplaying identities. Miley would later turn her back on hip-hop, a genre that underscores a lot of Bangerz‘s musical and lyrical palette, reiterating how easy it is for white artists to ‘try on’ Black culture. Referencing some rap lyrics, in 2017, a now rootsy Miley told Billboard: “That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ – I am so not that.” (Two years later, Miley apologised via YouTube, calling her words “insensitive” as it is a “privilege to have the ability to dip in and out of ‘the scene.’”)
A decade on, Miley finally seems to be more comfortable with who she is. “Flowers”, a sort of modern-day “I Will Survive”, celebrates the power of knowing yourself. It’s been a journey, and Bangerz is a vital part of the rich tapestry that is Miley Cyrus’s musical evolution.